Income inequality highlighted on Tax Day

Income inequality is at its worst in nearly a century, with the highest earners paying low tax rates in the face of a massive federal deficit and crumbling public services. To lessen income inequality, we must curb the political power of the very rich.

Rex Arbogast/AP/File
In this October file photo, Darrell Willis wears a "99%" button and an American flag at the corner of LaSalle and Jackson during an Occupy Chicago protest in Chicago. Reich argues that the depth of income inequality is painfully clear on Tax Day, with the rich paying far lower rates than they should.

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote in 1904, “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”

But the wealthiest Americans, who haven’t raked in as much of America’s income and wealth since the 1920s, are today paying a lower tax rate than they have in over thirty years. Even though America faces a mammoth federal budget deficit. Even though public services at all levels of government continue to be slashed. Even though the median wage is still dropping, adjusted for inflation. Even though the typical American is paying more of his or her earnings in taxes – including payroll taxes, sales taxes, and property taxes – than ever before.

I’m not a class warrior. I’m a class worrier. And my worries go to why all this has happened. 

I worry about the political power than comes with great wealth – such as the power of the wealthy to reduce their taxes, cut the public services most other Americans depend on, while at the same time garnering special subsidies and tax breaks for their businesses – big oil, big pharma, big agriculture, military contractors, big insurance, Wall Street

I worry about the well-financed big lies that the very rich are the nation’s “job creators,” that the benefits from tax cuts on the rich “trickle down” to everyone else, that American corporations will create more jobs if only their taxes are lowered and if regulations protecting health, safety, and the environment were jettisoned.

I worry about the increasing dominance of Wall Street over our economy and democracy, and the near political impossibilities of closing the “carried interest” loophole that allows private-equity and hedge-fund managers to treat their income as capital gains subject to only 15% tax; of resurrecting the Glass-Steagall Act separating investment from commercial banking, and of breaking up the big banks to protect against another financial crash and bailout of the Street.

You and I have every right to be class worriers – and to be outraged at what has occurred. But we must get beyond worry and outrage, and do everything in our power to take back our economy and reclaim our democracy.

It was another justice of the Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis, who wrote in 1897, “we may have a democracy or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

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